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The rise and decline of London as a pan-Arab media hub

Issue 4, Winter 2008

By Najm Jarrah

No longer calling?

No longer calling?

Slowly but surely over the past few years, London has been losing its status as unchallenged capital of the pan-Arab media. 

Some important players on the London Arab media scene have moved out, either wholly or in part. Those that remain are being eclipsed by newer outlets based in the region, or challenged by changing media production and consumption patterns in the Arab world. Others have waned, or wound up completely.  The factors that combined to turn the British capital into a magnet for the Arab media – money, technology, expertise and political conditions – are nowadays having something of a reverse effect. There is still an enormous amount of Arab media activity around. But while London was central to the emergence of a pan-Arab daily press and the proliferation of transnational Arabic publications from the late 1970s to the 1990s, it is a relatively modest participant in the pan-Arab media’s current satellite TV-led and entertainment-oriented booms.

So, what has changed over the years? Not much about Britain as host, but plenty about the Arab media and the environment in which they operate. London’s stint as their hub can be seen as having marked a transition between two stages in the development of the pan-Arab media: the Lebanese phase, when the Beirut press and publishing industry acted as a kind of pan-Arab media by proxy, and the al-Jazeera era with concomitant relaxation of media controls in many Arab countries.

With nowhere else in the Arab world enjoying comparable press and personal freedoms to Lebanon’s, Europe became the destination of choice for publications and journalists who abandoned Beirut after the outbreak of civil war in 1975 - and continued doing so in waves as the troubles persisted, notably after the 1982 Israeli invasion.  As formerly Lebanese-based publishers re-launched abroad or started new titles and ventures, they initiated a trend that quickly developed into a growth industry, with a succession of Arab governments, individuals, political groups and other interested parties getting in on the act.

Thus, more than a century after the first Syrian and Egyptian exiles took to publishing Arabic journals in European cities to escape censorship at home, the phenomenon of the modern Arab offshore media was born: produced by Arabs, for Arabs, in Arabic, with Arab agendas and attitudes, but outside the stifling confines of the Arab states.

For some of these media emigrants, Lebanese especially, Paris was initially the favored choice of haven. Others found nearby (and cheaper) Cyprus more convenient. But the bigger and more ambitious ventures gravitated increasingly to London, in turn attracting others, and the British capital became the place from which to address the Arab world as a whole, or at least its newspaper- and magazine-reading elites.

The lure of London

In its heyday, London was home to scores of Arabic publications of diverse provenance, function and quality: From lavishly-subsidized journals with pretensions to a worldwide readership, political publications of every persuasion and cheaply-printed dissident tracts, to glossy lifestyle magazines, sophisticated cultural titles and mischievous (or merely mercenary) gossip-purveyors.

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